The Champs-Elysées

Champs-Elysées ParisFor glory and grandeur, this is the most famous avenue in the world. If the monuments and symmetrical landscaping don't convince you, remember that Champs-Elysées means "Elysian Fields" which indicates that someone thought this street was heaven on earth. The monuments and history connected to this avenue are worth more than the reality of the place today. While the avenue is one of the required stopping sites in Paris, the place is a mere shadow of what is used to be. Once the famed meeting point for polititians and intellectuals, the stylish cafés have given way to a generally commercial atmosphere with enormous hub-stores such as Sephora, Gap, Virgin and even McDonalds. While the French publicly decry these monuments to American crassness and capitalism, they secretly adore them. Visit one on a Saturday at noon and my point will be proven. Still, if you can squint and try to imagine the area in its heyday, it is worth strolling the massive sidewalks with their elegant facades and leafy plane trees. The older avenue was once protected by severe building codes, limiting construction to the highest aesthetic standards and creating an avenue which was frequented almost exclusively by high-end Parisian society. In recent years, with metro access and a more flexible zoning law, the Champs-Elysées has drifted toward mass tourism and isolated horrors of consumerism.

The Champs-Elysées draws a perfectly straight line from the Louvre, through the Tuilerie Gardens and the Place Concord, bisects the Arche de Triomphe where it becomes the avenue de la Grande Armée, and culminates at the base of the modern Arche de la Défence. This is Paris' new financial district, which I'm afraid looks a little like downtown Charlotte, North Carolina. A stroll through the Tuilerie Gardens is highly recommended. You can exit the Louvre and retire to the park to recover. Within the park you will discover that there are cafés and benches to use to take a break as well as the popular central fountain where you can try to snag the metal chairs people use to sunbathe in. Securing one of these free chairs is quite a feat in the busy summer months. I recommend you split up if you are in a group and try to fan out in the hope of increasing your chances. People will run and throw themselves in front of you for one of these precious chairs, so be prepared to fight. Move fast and don't look anyone in the eye. Once you have one no one can make you leave. If you need a restroom, there are pay toilets by the gate facing the Place Concorde. (but say goodbye to your chair) On the North and South end of the park are two very interesting museums--- The Jeu de Paume which is used exclusively for photography, and the Orangerie which is being renovated (closed for now) and will house a splendid impressionist collection. The Orangerie was originally built as a nursery for orange trees, but was later selected by Monet as the resting place for his famous painting, The Water Lilies, which was the museum's centerpiece.

Place de Concorde, ParisThe Place de la Concord provides the quintessential "Parisian view". From here you can see the Arch in the distance, the massive avenue, the National Assembly, the Madeleine church, the famous Hotel de Crillon, the Grand Palais, the Obelisk of Luxor, and the Eiffel Tower rising behind it all. While the scene is breathtaking, it helps to remember that thousands of people were executed in the center of the square during the revolution, including Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. The obelisk was a gift from Egypt--- imagine receiving a 2,300 year old obelisk for your backyard…it's not as though you could hide it in the closet. Facing the obelisk is the Hotel de Crillon---- NOT for the budget conscious family. This is generally considered the most exclusive hotel in Paris. It is adjacent to the American embassy, which is appropriate considering the hotel was the place Benjamin Franklin met King Louis XVI to sign the treaty recognizing America's independence. King Louis was kind enough to sign. This was of course before he lost his head. (literally) Even worse this is the spot where I dropped my camera and spent the next few hours trying to repair it, to no avail and finally had to accept that it could not be saved and wandered the city trying to find the exact same camera, also unsuccessfully. Eventually I did find a suitable camera and I was able to continue working. But I can't look at a photo of the obelisk without thinking about the camera slipping out of my hands and breaking. I don't suppose I will ever get over it.

Champs-Elysées, ParisNow it's a straight shot to the arche visible at the end of the avenue. It's worth taking this walk in the evening when the lights are lit, or even better yet, at Christmas, when thousands of light bulbs hang in the giant trees. Try to avoid starting conversations with gypsy girls who ask if you speak English. This is an old trick which American tourists continue to fall for (probably just happy someone is willing to speak English) and inevitably leads to pleading for money, or even pick-pocketing. It's up to you. On your left you will eventually see two imposing buildings--- one with a distinctive glass roof. This is the Grand Palais and it's little sibling the Petit Palais. They were built for the World Fair in 1900 and continue to be used for major exhibitions. (temporarily closed for renovations) This is where most of the Salon exhibitions for the official School of Paris took place. Past the museums is the Pont Alexander III, an impressive, if overdone, monument to soaring gold statues and belle-epoque architecture. It leads to the imposing gold dome of the Invalides in the distance.

Champs Elysees, ParisThe remainder of the Champs-Elysées begins a series of cafés, shops, restaurants and movie theaters which end at the giant arch. The class of the fin de siecle is gone, but two famous café/restaurants continue to draw admirers. The Ladurée is a café monument to the elegance of 19th century, whereas Fouquet's (no pun intended) with its distinct red awnings draws a trendier crowd to a very similar atmosphere. If you are determined to see Johnny Depp with Vanessa or Depardieu in Paris, this might be the place. (for all I know they hate the place, but it's a known film industry hangout) The gold plates in the sidewalk are another reason the actors like this place--- they hope to see their names there one when they make it to the French version of the Oscars. If you thought the American Oscars are an insult to intelligent humanity, the French one is like a bad copy of a plaster copy of a Roman copy of a Greek sculpture bought in a gift shop. My favorite spot is a small plaque attached to an old building across the street which states that Thomas Jefferson lived there from 1785-1789. Unlike John Adams, who preceded him, he was something of a dandy and probably enjoyed pulling up in his expensive carriage, on the most expensive street in the world as Minister to the newborn USA.

The Lido Cabaret is also nearby. Once considered the worlds greatest, it seems to have faded a bit over the past years. Now it is frequented mainly by masses of tourists, most often huge groups of Japanese businessmen who seem to have a unique interest in these somewhat outdated shows. Still it is a spectacle and if you are in Paris and are looking for something to do one night then why not? You can book Dinner and a Show at the Lido, or if you are interested there is a Dinner Cruise and Lido Show as well as Dinner at the Eiffel Tower plus a Cruise and Lido Show

Arche de Triomphe ParisThe last great monument is of course the Arche de Triomphe commissioned by Napoleon who wanted it to commemorate his victory at Austerlitz, as well as show off to his new young bride Marie-Louise. Embarrassingly, the edifice was still only a few meters tall at the time of his marriage and was hidden with a painted backdrop for the procession. It's a touch ironic that it was completed in time for his funeral procession when his body was returned from exile. This is still the starting point for most French Parades, and while the arche looks heavy and squat to me, its sheer mass is impressive. The monument is most stunning at night, lit from below with giant spotlights. At its base is the tomb of the unknown soldier. For those who like to climb stairs, the terrace and small museum is accessible through the base. 12 grand avenues intersect at the arch which makes it look like a giant star from above. (this is why the French call it the l'Etoile, or star, not to be confused with la Toilette) Don't try to cross this almost permanent traffic nightmare! There is an underpass which will take you to the monument.

I find watching the traffic scenarios and the multiple fender-benders as interesting as staring at the arche. It is almost unbelievable that traffic manages to circulate in this giant wheel without lanes or lights--- a few minutes of observation will show you that there are three types of drivers entering the circle: the manic-aggressive, the panic-hesitant and the simply lost. Take your pick, and some solace in the news that insurance companies in France split the bill 50/50 for any accidents that happen in this particular spot. In other words, you can't win or lose here. But If you drive a Bentley, take another route.

Hotels

The 5-star Hotel de Crillon is one of the world's oldest luxury hotels. It is located at the foot of the Champs-Élysées on the north end of Place de la Concorde. The luxurious 5-star Hôtel Champs Élysées Plaza is an exclusive Haussmann-styled mansion. The 5-star Paris Marriott Hotel Champs Elysées offers complimentary newspapers delivered to the rooms, a multilingual staff with concierge service, valet dry-cleaning and free coffee in the lobby. The 4-star Fraser Suites Le Claridge Champs-Elysées offers ready-to-live-in apartments complemented by personalised service for short or long-term stays. The 3-star Hotel Beauchamps is located just a few steps from the Champs-Elysées and offers elegant guestrooms and suites with air-conditioning and flat-screen TV. For budget travelers the pickings are slim, most of the lower priced hotels being several blocks northeast of the Champs-Elysees but the 2 star Hotel Paris Saint Honore is close and offers excellent value for money all year round and ideal accommodation for both business and leisure travellers. The Bridgestreet Champs-Elysées offers elegant apartments and studios located in Paris’s fashionable 8th arrondissement, just a few minutes from the Champs-Elysées. All residences are fully equipped with modern amenities.

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